Rotterdam Marathon Review

There are many ways to skin the marathon cat. Since joining the Richmond Harriers in 2018, I have been exposed to a training plan which values high weekly mileage. The main coach is Neil Ryan who ran a 2:17 marathon in 1974, which for the era, was a cracking time (and is still not to be sniffed at). Neil’s training practices related well to the training of the pioneering Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand. For my first two years at Richmond Harriers, I was on a steady mileage of 80-90km. I was pretty much hedging my bets on running. I was balancing it with family life; not going full in. By the time the Pandemic hit in 2020, I’d been running for seven years. While out on a solo run one day, I asked myself: “is this all it has come to?” The most recent 10km I had done was barely under 40mins: a full five minutes slower than my PB some five years earlier. Soon after, Joji, my neighbour, friend and second in charge at the Richmond Harriers put it to me: see what you can achieve by running, more or less, 20km a day. He told me not to think about doing a marathon in 2020 or even 2021. Just do the training. A race will come along when you are ready. So, Rotterdam 2022 was more or less the culmination of two years of training.

Photo by Erik van Leeuwen

Preamble

Since around February 2020, I have basically worked on running consistently above 100, 120, 140 km per week. For many runners, this is a lot of kilometers per week. I was able to do my 20kms per day as I worked from home and, while in Melbourne, I had my parents to help my partner and I with looking after our daughter.

I’ve been blessed with a few minor interruptions. I’ve had a cold in August 2020 and 2021. Also, upon moving to the Netherlands, I had ankle issues, when I had to become used to running a lot more on hard surfaces. I probably did too much too soon. But in the grand scheme of things, these have been insignificant.

The Pandemic meant that for 2020 and most of 2021, there were no official races. On the one hand this was a blessing: it allowed for concentrated training time. On the other, it might have created situation where I got out of race practice. Training hard became the equivalent of a race. 

Around June 2020, and while still in Melbourne, I got my 10km PB down to 34:40. Only six months earlier, I had done a 10km in 39minutes. The high mileage was having an impact. Even though this was an unofficial pb, it set a new bench mark for what I ‘should expect’ from my 10km time. The course was along the undulating Yarra River bike path. I ran with my mate MJ who was doing 16km that day: his 16km pace was roughly equivalent to my 10km pace.

Leiden: Adapting to a new running environment. A shift in context.

The Netherlands has excellent running infrastructure. It is possible to run on many bike paths, where the pavement is soft, and the paths are well-lit and signed. Most of the time there is not too much nasty interaction with cyclists. The canals too are very enjoyable to run along. During non-Pandemic times there are plenty of races to choose from each weekend. Of course, the terrain is very flat so one misses out on the benefits of hill work. Upon returning, I signed up to the club I was a member of between 2013 and 2016.

Leiden Atletiek: an excellent club with very good coaches: Bram Wassenaar and Han Kulker. Both Bram and Han represented the Netherlands in the Olympics. In my group, there are athletes in their 50s, and also the approximately 20 year old indoor national champion 800m, Amina Maatoug. There are runners still yet to achieve their PBs and others still maintaining their fitness and ability. The LA track is used virtually every day of the week by different levels of athletes. At LA, I can basically be anonymous: only problem is, as a non-Dutch speaking foreigner it is pretty hard not to stand out. There is a good group I can fit in with: Maikel, Philip, Bereket, Martijn, Timo, Elias, Learoy, Daan. There are degrees of differences between us, but we can train together well. We get along well, I’d say.

Photo by: Evert Buitendjik

Training: I decided to do the Rotterdam marathon only in January 2022. It was about three full months before the race on 10th April. I made this decision after already having a strong base. I also only officially signed up after having done a 40km long run on a Sunday. I felt so good on that day: the numerous Sundays of doing 30km meant that the jump to 40km wasn’t so significant. The sun was shining and the temperature was mild. Upon walking in the door I announced to my partner: ’40km and am feeling as fresh as a daisy’. It was a mini-runners high.

Others (Maikel, Philip, Martijn, Elias) at LA had signed up for the marathon and had been given a program. I took a quick peak at the program and saw that it wasn’t my cup of tea. It wasn’t my method of skinning the marathon cat. Joji quickly told me that he would have me on an alternative program, consistent with my training at RH over the last 2-3 years. This meant that I had to extricate myself from the LA group for a period. I felt that after having invested in the method of high-mileage, it would have been a little disingenuous to change my training methods so close to the race. Plus, I had been starting to see results: wiping 40 seconds off my 5km pb. (16:50 down to 16:10).

This ‘leaving of the group’ was tough on the one hand: I knew that it meant I would be doing 90% of my running alone and thus missing out on the camaraderie of the club. I had just ‘settled in’ to my new group and was forging better running-relationships with others. So, ‘checking out’, was a slight threat to whether I was an insider or an outsider. As a non-Dutch speaker, I already feel like an outsider. So, this path was quite fragile. Nonetheless, I wanted to take-leave of the group in a respectful manner. I stayed in touch with many at the club via WhatsApp and of course we had each other under mutual surveillance through Strava.

I didn’t explicitly state to the coaches, Bram and Han, that I was leaving for a short while. (I did of course maintain my membership.) I did though regularly update them with my race results, which they always viewed positively. Han, on occasion, told me to ‘not do too much’ via WA, as word had started to travel amongst the group up about my high weekly mileage – particularly my 45km run; my 150, 160 or 170km weeks. What I missed most about LA, apart from the general banter during training, was the loopschooling, or technique drills. This is something that is absent at Richmond Harriers. I felt that I was starting to get the hang of the drills and also feel their benefits. Doing solo training meant that I wouldn’t get access to the specificities of these drills. So, I happily followed Joji (and Neil’s method). Joji is a patient and carefully listening guy so, I knew I would have someone to talk to about my training. Long-distance running after all is a slow burn. It sucks up a lot of time and mental energy. It is of course very rewarding, too.

The Ryan-Mori Method: 

Key features: Tuesday, comfortable hard: 16km. (nicknamed ‘chard’) (Single Chard)

 I’d do a two km warm up and a two km warm down. 

That would bring my total up to 20km. 

 I loved this run. This was roughly en lieu of track work.

 I’d run through a combination of bike paths, parkland and roads next to canals. Often times, I’d start into a strong westerly wind and finish with the wind at my back. Over the four times (only?) that I did this course and session, I feel like I learned a lot about myself as a runner. I learned to push myself at a hard pace, for longer than usual. 

Over time, I developed my non-watching-watch skills. On days when the wind was very strong (40-50km per hour, or thereabouts), I ignored my watch totally. On these days, I wanted to let my body and mind tell me whether or not I had run well, rather than my watch. Not looking at my watch helped me to stay focused during the run, when otherwise, getting close to 4min kilometres, going into the wind, could have been dispiriting. Sometimes I’d do my last few kilometres well under 3:30 pace. It was always exhilarating to finish strongly.

Sunday Long: 

These varied between a hard 32km effort (nicknamed the ‘Double Chard’). The first time I did the Double Chard, I cooked myself. It was the first time I wore my pair of VaporFlys and my legs just flew along. It was like they were living their own lives. At the 28km I was cooked and struggled to hang on. I took a pee by a tree and briefly caught my breath. But, that first 21km was exhilarating. Between kilometres 22-28: I knew I was struggling to put in consistent kms, but I still felt pretty good. But those last four hurt. What was odd about this sense of tiredness though was that I was out of breath. My legs still felt good. Normally, in a race, my legs would tire first, while still having enough in my lungs.

 The other main Sunday Long, was the 42km+ run. I loved these too. I did a couple with Elias. I did two 42km+ gentle runs. I did one 42km run at marathon effort. I did the first 30km with Joao. I was comfortable for the first half then brought it home over the last half, particularly the last 10km. Joao is an excellent pacer and I recommend his services. Doing the marathon distance in 2:37 (totally unofficial, Garmin GPS accuracy, only) was very, very satisfying. I felt like I had stepped into a new running space that day. My previous PB for a marathon was 2:52 – on a windy day in Melbourne in 2016. It now felt realistic to target sup-2:35 for my Rotterdam Marathon.

Lead Up Races: 

16km, Voorschoten: Pacing = very good; effort = good; time = very good; racing attitude = pretty good. Rating: 8.5/10

Half-Marathon, Nijmegen: pacing = very good; racing attitude = very good

Rating: 8.5/10.

10km, Roelofarendsveen: pacing = bit too slow, but at least consistent; racing attitude = not quite what it could have been

Rating: 7.5/10

Race Day: Sunday 10th April

As good as perfect conditions. Light wind, but nothing that upset running technique. 

5km: about 16:30

10km: about 36:30

Half-way: about 1:16:30

Final time: 2:36:52. 

Rating: 7/10

This means that I did the last half in roughly 1:20mins. Which, well, I’m not thrilled with. If my splits had been 1:18, the race would have felt more pleasing. 

I lost touch with my group at the 35km mark. My feeling is that I had done two things poorly: (1) gone out too hard. Would have been safer to get to half-way at 1:17:30 or 1:18. And (2): I didn’t have enough gels. Two gels, I feel, wasn’t enough. It felt to be enough during my self-organised marathon, but during that, I paced myself much better. Two weeks after the event, I looked at my splits: I had indeed sped up between 11km and 21km. I was following Philip, when perhaps I should have just chilled for a bit longer.

sucking up the loneliness of the long distance runner (photo by Erik van Leeuwen)

Between 35-42km I was just hanging on for grim life. I heard my friend Tim call out, but I didn’t even manage to turn my head to find him. I had no energy left for one final push. There was no spark. No runners’ high. Everything was moving slowly. I lost my peripheral vision. If my target pace was 3:40 pace, I lost about 2.5mins over these last seven kilometres. I did a couple of kilometres at over 4mins. Not ideal. But, honestly, it felt slower. The roads were full of cheering spectators, but I couldn’t respond to their energy. I saw a couple of old friends at the end and smiled, but I knew I had blown my chance at being really thrilled. I didn’t get the buzz that I had when I did my unofficial marathon around the parks and canals of Leiden.

All things considered: Well, I have to be happy with my time. I was happy with my preparation. I got to the start line in the best shape I could hope for. I hadn’t been sick or injured. I’d run everyday between October 24th and April 10. That was a lot of solo kilometres in the wind, rain, coldness and dark. When I crossed the line, I didn’t immediately check my watch or the official time. I wanted my body and mind to absorb first how I was feeling. My legs tightened up. Maikel and Philip greeted me. I hobbled over to get a massage. I immediately felt a kind of ‘okay-ness’ rather than a deep satisfaction. Two weeks before the race I had said to my mate Joao, ‘whatever the outcome, i want to be happy with my result.’ I feel like I achieved this.

I’m not in a rush to do another marathon. I want to be a different runner, with new PBs in shorter distances, before I do so. Whatever the case, I do know now, when I sign up though for ‘the next one’, I’ll be able to put in this time as my official time. It’s a nice time. One year ago, I would have been ecstatic at the thought of getting under 2:45. In the next marathon, I’ll be at the front of the queue, roughly – comfortably behind the elite and the sub-elite, but still in the first start wave. What I’ve learned most, perhaps, is the will to compete and the will not to be satisfied; to want to push more and to perform on the day.

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